A Short History of Brexit

Many of the sources cited in A Short History of Brexit, particularly in the later chapters, are freely available on the internet. I am reproducing the book’s endnotes here so that these can be easily accessed by interested readers.

This post lists the notes for chapters up to and including Chapter 7. The notes for Chapters 8-11 and the Envoi are available here.

Continue reading “A Short History of Brexit”

Une brève histoire du Brexit

I have just published a short history of Brexit. In the latter chapters, dealing with the Single Market, Brexit, and the subsequent negotiations, a lot of the (mainly official) sources used are freely available online. In order to make it easier for the interested reader to consult these sources, and find out more about the EU and Brexit, I am reproducing the endnotes below.

Cher lecteur, chère lectrice: veuillez trouver ci-dessous, comme promis dans mon livre, les notes de bas de page. J’espère que cela facilitera ceux et celles qui souhaitent approfondir encore davantage leur connaissances sur l’Union européenne, le Brexit et les négociations sur le Brexit. A ce jour les liens fonctionnent tous, mais si vous trouvez des erreurs faites-le moi savoir et je ferai le nécessaire.

Continue reading “Une brève histoire du Brexit”

Who is fudging? (Answer: not the EU.)

There has been a lot of talk since yesterday’s deal pointing out that there has been a certain amount of fudging going on. But there is fudge and fudge, and it’s helpful to be clear about what’s being fudged and by whom.

Paragraph 49 states:

“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s objective is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

These are commitments made by the UK to the EU and there is very little fudge here. The UK is committing as a backstop solution to the full alignment needed to “support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” in the context of an over-arching commitment to avoid a hard border. Avoiding a hard border requires full alignment for all traded goods. North-South cooperation involves the famous 142 areas of North-South cooperation we have been hearing about, and brings services like health into the mix. The all-island economy is even broader. And the Good Friday Agreement brings things like human rights into the mix.

Paragraph 50 states that:

“In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph , the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.”

Notice anything? These are not commitments made by the EU. These are, once again, commitments made by the UK, in this instance to the DUP.

Paragraphs 49+50 appear to be a bit of a fudge, although the fudge can be undone by the entire UK maintaining full alignment with the EU. But let’s be clear: this is the UK fudging, not the EU, and the UK needs to fudge at this stage because of the internal contradictions of its own position. But the EU will naturally take the view that the UK must meet its commitments made to the EU in Paragraph 49. There is no fudge here: the EU has sought and obtained an impressive series of concessions from the UK, and the UK will be held to its word.

Note also that Paragraph 45 states that:

“The United Kingdom respects Ireland’s ongoing membership of the European Union and all of the corresponding rights and obligations that entails, in particular Ireland’s place in the Internal Market and the Customs Union. The United Kingdom also recalls its commitment to preserving the integrity of its internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it, as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union’s Internal Market and Customs Union.”

These are again UK commitments, and the first of these is in the present context a commitment to respect the fact that the EU needs to police the external frontiers of its Internal Market and Customs Union. So the turning-a-blind-eye-to-smuggling non-solution is out.

And finally, note that Paragraph 46 states that:

“The commitments and principles outlined in this joint report will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom and are, as necessary, specific to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. They are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom.”

The first sentence rules out the Brexiteers’ Baldrick-like cunning plan to use whatever special arrangements may be reached on the island of Ireland as precedents, allowing them to have their cake and eat it when it comes to the economic relationship between Great Britain and the European Union. And the second sentence commits the UK to uphold its engagements on Ireland in all circumstances.

As I say, it doesn’t seem to me as though the EU allowed much fudging when it came to the UK’s commitments to the EU regarding Ireland.

How Her Majesty’s Government simultaneously manages to meet its Paragraph 49 obligations to the EU, and its Paragraph 50 obligations to the DUP, taking account of inter alia Paragraphs 45 and 46, is something it will have to figure out. The UK government clearly ought to fulfil its commitments to the DUP, but whether it does so or not is hardly a primary concern of the EU. Paragraph 49 is what the EU will care about, not Paragraph 50. (Although Ireland would be very happy if the UK met both obligations in the only way that seems possible, namely by effectively staying in a Single Market and Customs Union type of arrangement with the EU.) If the UK wants to leave the EU in a civilised and amical manner, and strike a trade deal with the EU in the future, it will have to uphold the very clear commitments it has made to the EU. How the British deal with British fudge — whether Mrs May betrays the DUP, or abandons her previous red lines regarding membership of a customs union and the Single Market —  is a matter for them. But sooner or later they are going to be forced to confront and deal with the internal contradictions of their position.

More on the Article 50 process

Kevin’s article in the Irish Times is excellent. In the post below I make some of the same points and some others.

The farce on Monday highlighted Theresa May’s political weakness. It has also, yet again, revealed that many of the Brexiteers (and also many commentators) simply do not understand what is going on.

Various UK commentators and politicians have called on the EU to compromise. For example the BBC reported that “David Davis has said the EU must be willing to give ground too if further progress in Brexit talks is to be made.” This seems to stem from a belief that the so called phase 1 ‘negotiations’ are conducted in the usual way of political negotiations, where each side gives in a little, and in the end some clever form of words is found whereby each side can claim they got their way. This is simply not the case here.

The Article 50 process is about establishing what the UK is going to do regarding their financial liabilities, citizens rights (here the UK will also want to establish what the EU intends to do), whether a hard border on the island of Ireland will be necessitated by the future actions of the UK and whether the Good Friday Agreement, an internationally binding agreement can be maintained.

It is important to remember that it is the UK that wants to deviate from the status quo, so it is up to the UK to spell out in detail what it wants to change. The EU will determine if this is satisfactory for them to move to phase 2 where the future relationship between the UK and the EU will be negotiated.

Determining whether the UK proposals on these Article 50 issues are satisfactory is a technical matter not a political one. Either regulations in the UK (or Northern Ireland) will differ or they won’t, either the UK will end up agreeing to tariffs with third countries that deviate from those in the Customs Union or they don’t. If the UK wants to move in a direction where an open border would undermine the integrity of the EU Single Market and Customs Union, then border controls will be necessary.

Whatever is agreed will need to stand up to legal challenge, e.g. when the first lorry load of chlorinated chicken or beef that entered the UK at lower tariffs than are due in the EU, rolls across the border – so some clever form of words won’t do. There can be no compromise or a la carte approach here.

What can be offered to ease some of the unfounded DUP fears, are assurances regarding the status of Northern Ireland as a part of the UK (unless of course, as is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, a majority decide to change that).

The plea for some give from the EU side reveals another misconception among Brexiteers and that is that the UK is an equal partner in this. Instead it is by a long way the junior partner in the process.

The latest World Bank World Development Indicators shows that the UK is the 6th largest economy in the world. It slipped a place, at least in part due to Brexit, making France the 5th largest economy, but importantly the EU excluding the UK is almost six times larger than the UK in economic terms. The potential losses of a failure to agree a trade deal are also considerably more significant for the UK than the EU – over four and a half times those suffered by the EU (based on Lawless and Morgenroth, 2016, I also have estimates that put this seven times). Of course Ireland is something of an outlier but even here the impact on total trade is less than half that potentially suffered by the UK.

This coupled with the fact that the EU is the UKs largest trading partner, means that walking away from the process is a strategy that would maximise the self-harm to the UK economy, as this would mean that the UK will not get a trade deal with the EU. Of course a trade deal with the EU would be the quickest one to put in place and of course it would also cover the largest share of UK trade so it is also the most important one.

Brexit and the Irish border

As we get closer to the important EU Council meeting the amount of coverage on Brexit has increased significantly. Of course more noise does not necessarily equate to more content – there is a lot of uninformed opinion around.

There are some fundamental issues that need to be understood.

While we are talking about the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, we are also talking about a future external border of the EU. That means the issue of the Irish border is very important to the EU and our EU partners and all have the same objectives – to avoid a hard border. Thus, the negative commentary directed at Ireland by Brexiteers and the Brexiteer press, apart from being mostly factually wrong, is badly misdirected.

Of course the impact of a hard border would be felt more by Ireland than in any other Member State (you can find analysis on this here), but the nature of the border is a crucial determinant of the integrity of EU Customs Union and Single Market, and is thus of crucial importance to the EU. This latter point appears not be understood by everyone. To illustrate the significance of the EU external border, and the Irish border will be that post Brexit, it is useful to consider an example:

The UK wants to sign trade deals with other countries, which presumably will give other countries access to the UK market on different terms than are available in the EU. This is why the UK wants to leave the Customs Union. If the UK allows beef from a third country into the UK at a lower tariff than the EU would charge and/or subject to less regulation than applies in the EU (as part of a trade deal), then this beef could enter the EU if there is no hard border. Of course with lower tariffs in the UK than in the EU exporters would move their product through the UK (Northern Ireland) into the EU.

This would mean that the UK would effectively determine EU external trade policy. The EU will not allow such a situation to arise – and neither should Ireland as such a situation is likely to have significant negative impact on Irish businesses and consumers (remember the regulations are there to protect consumers).

This means that the apparent offer by the UK, that there will be no regulatory divergence at least for Northern Ireland, will not avoid the need for a hard border as the issue of different tariffs is not covered by that offer. A hard border will only be avoided if the UK, or at least Northern Ireland, stay in the Customs Union and there is no regulatory divergence – there is no way around this! An offer to avoid regulatory divergence is not enough to move to the next phase of the negotiations.

Even a special status for Northern Ireland, where the border runs through the Irish Sea and where UK authorities ensure that third country products do not end up in the EU market, is problematic as it would be difficult for the EU to enforce the proper policing of that border, given that it is located outside the EU in a sovereign country.

Another important point relates to opinions about the use of existing or yet to be invented technological solution to police the border. A lot of the legitimate routine trade is already processed electronically, and could easily continue to be processed that way. But that does not remove the need to check that what is being transported is what had been declared, and more importantly border checkpoints are there to stop illegal activity. It is hardly credible that criminals are going to be declaring their trade via an online system!? Importantly, once the UK is outside the Customs Union illegal activity will not only encompass the usual things like drug smuggling but will also encompass shipments where the tariffs and duties due in the EU have not been paid or where the goods do not meet EU regulatory requirements. In the event that the UK is outside the Customs Union (tariffs) and Single Market (regulations), Ireland is obliged to police this border adequately, which means physical checks.

This brings me to my next point. It would be very easy for the UK to guarantee that it will not introduce physical border checks, but given the arguments I put forward above, what the UK would needs to guarantee is that the EU will not need to put in physical border check in response to changes introduced by the UK in the wake of Brexit, namely deviations from regulations, tariffs and tariff-quotas.

Finally, there is talk about some form of words being found that would allow negotiations to progress to the next phase. Again given the facts, what is needed are very concrete undertakings that would be legally binding and would avoid the need for a hard border i.e. that the UK will not leave the Customs Union and there will be no regulatory divergence. Without such undertakings the negations should not proceed to phase two. Importantly, this is the point where Ireland holds all the cards, and it would be great mistake to settle for anything less than such an undertaking.

Journées de l’Economie

I was at the Journées de l’économie in Lyon last week: this is a popular economics festival at which literally thousands of members of the public show up to listen to people like yours truly.

I was on a Brexit panel on the Wednesday, and tried to explain to a French audience how serious the issue is for us (I start about 30 minutes in, but the whole thing is worth listening to; I thought Jon Henley in particular, who preceded me, was really excellent and made all the points you would have wanted to make yourself); there was a more academic session on a very French topic (“Mutations du capitalisme“) on the Thursday,  at which Daniel Cohen made a couple of points that I thought were very thought-provoking (and also very French).

What if it was the Europeans picking the cherries?

Outside the UK, where words apparently mean whatever you want them to, it is universally understood that in order to avoid a border on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland (and preferably the UK as a whole) needs to stay in an equivalent of the existing EU customs union, and the European Single Market. Inside the UK, on the other hand, it seems to be commonly accepted that the UK needs to leave the Single Market because it has to restrict freedom of movement.(An argument that I have never accepted, but that is another matter.)

And so we have a problem.

In fact, however, the only bit of the European Single Market that the UK really has to stay in to avoid a border is the single market for goods — this would of course require it to apply European goods standards, accept all relevant ECJ rulings, and so forth.

Quite properly, the EU is ruling out cherry picking: the UK cannot stay in the bits of the Single Market it likes, and not in others. But what if it were ourselves, rather than the British, who picked the cherries?

In particular: it would be completely unacceptable for the UK to remain in the single markets for capital and services, while excluding itself from the single market for labour. This is, we all understand, never going to happen. And I suspect that they wouldn’t be allowed to remain in the single market for goods alone, either, and that proposing this is therefore a non-starter.

But I’m going to propose it anyway, in the full knowledge that I will be (probably quite properly) shot down, since it seems to have a few things going for it.

First, we would avoid borders, not just within Ireland but more generally, and this would help businesses across the continent. Supply chains would be unaffected, and so forth.

Second, the British would not have cherry picked — something that we could never allow a mere third country to do. We Europeans would have done the picking, on the grounds that it suited us to do so; and that seems to me like an important distinction.

Third, however, the Brexiteers would be able to say to their voters that they had restricted freedom of movement.

Fourth, however, this deal would only be made available on the basis that the UK also stayed in a customs union with the EU, since that would be required to avoid borders, which is the whole purpose of the exercise. So EU politicians would be able to point out, to their own populations, that the UK (a) was unable to do its own trade deals with other countries (b) had to accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ or an equivalent, such as the EFTA court, as it affects the single market for goods (c) had been unable to cherry pick as it saw fit.

Fifth, everyone could explain to their electorates that they had had to make these compromises in order to help preserve peace in Ireland.

Sixth, Ireland would avoid a border.

This would not be a great deal for the UK. Yes, they would get the frictionless trade that they say they want, and that they can’t get outside the Single Market and a customs union with the EU. They would keep their car industry, remain in Airbus supply chains, and all the rest of it. And that ought to be something that they would welcome. But: they would lose access to the single markets for services and capital, as long as they remained outside the single market for labour. They would lose jobs and tax revenue from the City. As a service economy, this is not the deal that they would have chosen: the UK would not be better off outside the EU than it is at present. But such a deal would be a lot better for them than the rather shallow, goods-only, friction-creating FTA arrangement that the UK seems to be heading for right now (if it gets even that). And they would always have the option of going for a deeper arrangement involving all four freedoms, if they decided that that is what they wanted at a later date.

What could the UK say on the border before getting to the second stage?

You sometimes hear the British say that they can’t make progress on the border before getting to the second stage of talks. While superficially plausible, the claim strikes me as disingenuous: there are surely several things that they could say right now that would make a lot of difference. For example, they could pledge that

  1. The United Kingdom will remain in an equivalent of the customs union and the single market, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border
  2. Northern Ireland will remain in an equivalent of the customs union and the single market, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border
  3. They will change their red lines regarding the nature of their exit from the EU and their future relationship with it, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border

As I think about it though, perhaps the key thing they should say is that (a) they accept that a customs union is defined as a group of countries surrounded by a common external tariff barrier and border; (b) that in addition, the European Single Market has always been and needs to be protected by an external border of some sort in order to maintain its product standards and so forth; (c) that they accept that Ireland will remain a full member of the EU, and hence of its customs union and single market; and (d) that there will therefore continue to be a border between Ireland and all third countries or regions not belonging to the European Single Market and a customs union with the EU.

None of these points is a matter of opinion, or subject to negotiation. (1) to (3) are a matter of fact or definition, and (4) is a logical consequence of (1)-(3). And it is very difficult to accept that you are negotiating with someone in good faith if they refuse to accept that black is not white and that 2 + 2 = 4. Right now the UK seems to most outsiders to be talking out of both corners of its mouth, claiming it doesn’t want an Irish border, while preparing to do things that will require one. How can you negotiate seriously with such a country?

If the UK were to accept (1) through (4), publicly, then its claim to want to avoid a hard border in Ireland — including any physical infrastructure, something that Mrs May very helpfully added in Florence — would sound rather different. (Right now, it sounds like hypocritical posturing.) Publicly accepting (1) through (4), and saying that they were willing to do whatever it takes to avoid a hard border, involving any sort of physical infrastructure, would mark a big step forward in my opinion. And it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for.

 

The case for pessimism: out of date?

The great advantage of a blog like this from my point of view is that it provides me with an archive of things I have written and said over the years that don’t end up on my cv. And so this is a post written primarily for my own benefit, linking to an article I wrote for the Irish Mail on Sunday in the week after the UK triggered Article 50 (there wasn’t an online version available at the time).

I was pretty pessimistic back in April — perhaps overly so. Since I was focusing on the British side, how could I not have been?  On the other hand, if I were writing the piece today I would place less stress on the economics, and more on the politics of the Border. That greatly limits the range of acceptable outcomes — but who is to say that the Irish government won’t succeed in its efforts? The recent EU paper on the subject is gratifyingly hardline in its approach to the issue: the language relating to avoiding “a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure” is exactly what we would have wanted, and has probably not been sufficiently commented-upon in Britain, ruling out as it does the Canada-US and Norway-Sweden options that some Brexiteers seem so keen on.

Since time is running out, and bespoke transitional arrangements are even less obtainable than they were a year ago, the most plausible and realistic way for the UK to avoid a cliff-edge would seem to be a transition involving the status quo, more or less.* That would kick the border issue into touch for a couple more years: and once we get to that stage, who knows what might eventually happen?

*Although I do still think that the cliff is a possibility, for the reasons stated in that column or here (sorry, more self-archiving).

Could Ireland credibly threaten to veto an EU-UK trade deal?

For years now, Ireland and the UK have been the best of friends. Very sadly, Brexit is placing the relationship under strain. The positions of the two governments on the Irish border could not be further apart. Ireland is very clear: no trade deal that involves a physical border is acceptable. That obviously implies that the United Kingdom should seek to remain within the European Economic Area, and form a new customs union with the EU.  This would replicate its existing trade ties with the bloc, while respecting the vote to leave the EU, and avoid the need for a border within Ireland. The United Kingdom, on its part, is adamant that it must leave the customs union in order to strike separate trade deals with the United States and other countries overseas.  To be sure, it pays lip service to the importance of avoiding a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but this appears to be nothing more than a cynical manoeuvre. On the one hand, the magical unrealist tendency within the British government appears to think that by talking up the border issue, they can undermine the EU customs union, which has been defined by a common external tariff barrier since the 1950s. This would allow the UK to have its cake and eat it. On the other hand, the lip service will, they hope, allow the UK to place the blame for the consequences of its own decisions on Ireland and the rest of the EU.

What, if anything, can Ireland do?  As has been noted recently, the country is not powerless. While the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU will be decided by qualified majority vote, Ireland does have a potential veto in at least two possibly relevant circumstances. First, it would have a veto should the UK seek to extend the two-year deadline for exit following its Article 50 notification.  Second, and probably more to the point, if as seems likely the UK ultimately seeks an ambitious, “mixed” trade deal with the EU that includes provisions on, for example, investment, Ireland will have a veto on that as well.

The UK therefore has the power to give Ireland something that we want: the maintenance of a border-free Ireland. There are encouraging signs that some in Britain may now be moving in that direction, but they are not currently the ones driving British policy. And down the line, Ireland will have the power to deny the UK something that it wants: a trade deal with the EU that goes beyond tariff-free trade in goods, and includes the kinds of provisions on portfolio investment that would be of interest to the City. The question therefore is: can Ireland credibly threaten to use this power in an attempt to prevent the reimposition of a border on our island? Continue reading “Could Ireland credibly threaten to veto an EU-UK trade deal?”

Using Ireland

I see that the government is changing its tone on Brexit and the border, and I welcome this whole-heartedly.

Life is too short to try to figure out what goes on inside the average Brexiteer’s head, but here is my best shot, as it relates to the Irish border.

Economics is all about choices, and consequently I have very little time for people who don’t realise that if, say, you eat a cake, you no longer have it. But as we know, the Brexiteers have refused to admit that their country does, in fact, have real and important choices to make.

In particular, if they want to avoid costly customs inspections, they need to remain members of the customs union. And if they want to avoid all the other border formalities and barriers to trade that existed before 1992, they have to remain members of the Single Market. If they exit both the customs union and the Single Market, this will inevitably reintroduce frictions of various sorts making trade with the EU more costly than at present, and this will remain true even after a free trade agreement is negotiated. For the whole point of the customs union and Single Market was to do away with those frictions.

So they have a choice, and it seems as though they are choosing to make trade more costly between the UK and the rest of the EU. That will have a variety of negative consequences for the UK economy. But to date, the UK government has been incapable of realising or at least admitting publicly that that is the choice they have made, since they are denying that you can’t both have your cake (leave the customs union and Single Market) and eat it (preserve frictionless trade with the EU). Perhaps they sincerely believe this — a scary thought. Or perhaps they just don’t want to admit it publicly, and given the many lies told during the Brexit campaign, you can understand why.

And this is where they hope that Ireland can help them. They tell us, hand on heart, that of course they want to avoid a Border, but what they really want is to leave the Single Market and customs union, and preserve frictionless trade with the entire EU. Which is, as said, impossible. But some of them apparently think that by shedding crocodile tears about the Irish border, they can achieve the impossible — by inducing the EU to turn a blind eye to smuggling across the border, thus undermining the EU customs regime and our consumer, environmental, and other safety standards. And of course, once the nonsense that technology can “solve” all border problems has been accepted in the Irish context, they hope that this will serve as a precedent for trade with the rest of the EU. Indeed, I have seen that argument made quite explicitly in the UK press, but since it’s Sunday I’m not going to spend an hour digging out the relevant quote.

But all that technology can do is lower (not eliminate) the Brexit-induced costs of legitimate UK-EU trade. It can’t stop illegitimate trade, which is why you really need border controls. And so we occasionally read British politicians and commentators tell us that the solution is of course going to involve a “light touch” approach towards smuggling, in effect “turning a blind eye” to it. Such suggestions are not only intellectually unserious, and unethical –since they amount to arguing that we should give a licence to organised crime to print money — but astonishingly politically naive. The UK is dealing with 27 other sovereign, democratic nations who aren’t going to allow their customs regime and regulatory standards be undermined, and their legal order upended, just to preserve the Brexiteers from the embarrassment that awaits them once the UK public figures out that cake, once eaten, is gone.

And so, as I say, I welcome the new tone coming from Merrion Street and Iveagh House. My best guess is that the hardline Brexiteers have never been interested in a special deal for Ireland per se, since they evidently don’t give a toss about the island, but that they have been hoping that Ireland can serve as the key unlocking a very, very special deal for the UK.

A deal so special that it is, in fact, impossible.

And I don’t think our country should let itself be used as the Brexiteers’ useful idiot.

 

 

 

 

65th Economic Policy Panel

For more than 30 years, Economic Policy has been publishing papers on pressing European policy issues. Preliminary versions of the papers are first discussed at Panel meetings. The 65th Panel meeting, which starts today in Valletta, features papers on the causes of Brexit, on the consequences of Brexit, on the impact of the 2015 reforms on the Italian labour market, on innovation, on entrepreneurship, on retirement, on monetary policy, and on mobile communications. The papers are available here.

Does trade policy only have a small impact on trade flows? Interwar evidence

I have been working for a number of years on interwar trade policy, trying to see if using more fine-grained data will alter the consensus view that 1930s protectionism didn’t matter much for trade flows, in the context of everything else that was going on at the time. It is time-consuming work, but we are beginning to produce some results now, the first of which are previewed here. And I suppose that one upside of the time it has taken us to put the dataset together is that, in the meantime, Brexit intervened, which will hopefully increase interest in quantitative studies of trade policy!

We have to prepare for the worst

Colm is in good form in the Independent today. I had exactly the same response to the BBC programme on Brexit as he did.

There are at least three reasons why I think an “off the cliff” Brexit is the most likely outcome.

First, and most importantly, an “off the cliff” Brexit is what the hard Brexiteers want: a break with the EU that is as clean and as unambiguous as possible. And they are currently driving the show. Arguments about economic interest have no impact on this group: for them, it is all about sovereignty, as they see it.

Second, the key Brexit ministers are clearly not on top of their brief. They assure us that jumping off the cliff will be fine, and then it emerges that they haven’t studied what its consequences would be: it is surreal stuff. Check out this clip of Brexit minister Davis, if you haven’t already, and remember: this is the man tasked with negotiating Brexit.

Third, while UK civil servants are very competent, there are only so many of them. If all off the shelf transitional arrangements are ruled out on theological grounds (having to do for example with the ECJ) then it is hard to see how bespoke arrangements can be sorted out within two years, even if ministers understand what needs to be done, and even if they want to do it.

Hopefully I will be proved wrong, but we have to assume the worst and prepare for it. That means not putting all our intellectual, political and administrative energy into fighting amongst ourselves as to what the best deal should be: there may not be one at all, simply because the UK doesn’t want one or isn’t capable of delivering it. It means thinking about the people who will be hurt — people working in small businesses exporting to the UK, primarily, but also people living in border regions — and about how the State and the EU can help them to adjust.* It means targeting every British food processing firm that may find itself at a competitive disadvantage in the EU post-2019 and seeing if they can be induced to invest in Ireland (outside Dublin, which is where we will need the jobs). It means becoming more granular: listening more to the industries involved, and solving specific problems one at a time. It means the rest of us abandoning the “I’m alright Jack” mentality that often pervades Irish discourse, and all of us realising that we really are in this together.

*And, even though I guess it is special pleading, spare a thought for cross-border workers. The pre-1973 CTA won’t be enough, I imagine, to replicate current arrangement.

 

Update: Wolfgang Münchau takes the polar opposite view, here. Hopefully he is correct!

 

 

 

Brexit, customs unions and borders

There have been some suggestions in Ireland, since June 23, to the effect that Ireland and the UK ought to be allowed to cut a special deal avoiding the need for customs borders within Ireland. In many cases these interventions seem to be ignorant of the basics of trade policy, and so a brief post on the distinction between free trade areas and customs unions might be useful at this point.

There are lots of explainers out there on the distinction: here, here, and here, beginning at p. 111 for example. Briefly, the main distinction between an FTA and a customs union is that in the latter, member states agree to a common external tariff, enforced along their common border with the rest of the world. Why would they do this, rather than retain the freedom to set their own tariffs vis-à-vis other countries? Because without a common external tariff, internal border controls will be necessary to avoid what is known as trade deflection.

Imagine that the UK and EU form a free trade area, but that the UK sets a 20% tariff on Japanese cars, while the EU sets a 10% tariff. Without border controls between the UK and EU, everyone would import Japanese cars into the UK via the EU — which would undermine the UK’s trade policy. Similarly, imagine that the UK does a trade deal with the US, and agrees to admit American beef duty free, while the EU retains a 15% tariff. Again, absent border controls between the UK and EU, everyone would import US beef into the EU via the UK, thus undermining EU trade policy.

So long as the UK and EU set different tariffs, therefore, there have to be border controls between them to ensure that Japanese cars and US beef are not being freely traded between them, alongside the UK and EU products that are entitled to be freely traded. And it is precisely because such border controls are costly that the EEC decided, all the way back in the 1950s, that it would set up a customs union rather than a mere free trade area.* The EU’s common external tariff is not a source of barriers: its whole point is to do away with barriers. That is why the provisions in the treaties regarding the customs union appear under the general heading “FREE MOVEMENT OF GOODS”. And so the fact that both Northern Ireland and the Republic were in the same customs union from 1973 onwards, and in the same Single Market from 1993 onwards, has been a great thing for Ireland.

As long as Ireland remains a member of the EU, it remains a part of its customs union. There is zero ambiguity on this point: the treaties state that

The Union shall comprise a customs union which shall cover all trade in goods and which shall involve the prohibition between Member States of customs duties on imports and exports and of all charges having equivalent effect, and the adoption of a common customs tariff in their relations with third countries.

No wiggle room here, as there is for example in some of the provisions regarding monetary union, and for good reason: the customs union has been the uncontested heart of the European project since the 1950s. As long as the North is outside the EU and its customs union, and the Republic is inside, there will have to be border controls between North and South to rule out trade diversion.

We all hope that these will be as unobtrusive as possible: if you like, that they will not be “hard”. IT can surely help. But customs controls of some sort there will have to be. As Eurointelligence says,

this is not an issue of political negotiation, but technical necessity. It is possible to soften the hardness of border by erecting customs posts for trucks alongside the motorway, before and after the border, and allow passenger cars free cross the border. But since the EU applies tariffs and taxes to goods entering the customs union, those goods have to be monitored at some point during the transit. You can think of the softest conceivable border as the one between Switzerland and Germany. Switzerland is in Schengen, but not in the customs union. Passenger cars pass relatively quickly, while there are sometime long lines of lorries on the motorway before the border. Call it what you will. But there will have to be customs controls post-Brexit.

Even if it were mysteriously possible for Ireland not to enforce the common external tariff and remain inside the EU, which it quite obviously isn’t: if we magically got the right to not check goods coming across the Border, what would be the result? Since Ireland would be de facto outside the customs union, all trade between Ireland and the EU26 would necessarily be subject to costly border and customs formalities, so as to rule out trade deflection. The basis for our prosperity, costless access to the Single Market, would be destroyed.

The return of the Border, however soft, is appalling. I understand that people wish that the British had not placed us in this position, but they have (the British, mark you, not the EU). And closing our eyes, sticking our fingers in our ears, and hoping that a fairy godmother will magic our problems away will not help.

It is logically coherent, if lunatic, to argue that Ireland should quit the EU and join the UK customs union (leaving the EU would on its own obviously not suffice to avoid a North-South border: our exit from the EU would have to be of the red, white, and blue variety). It is logically coherent to argue that Northern Ireland should remain within it, and I wish it would. That seems like something worth arguing for. But it is logically incoherent to argue that if we remain in the EU and its customs union, and the North leaves both, there can be some special deal that will avoid the need for a customs frontier on the island.

Those who want Ireland to leave the EU know that they are in a small minority, and many will not come out and argue for their position particularly strongly, for fear of being laughed out of court. The evidence that our prosperity is based on EU membership is overwhelming. But expect them, in the months and years ahead, to claim that the return of a customs frontier somehow shows that “the EU” has let Ireland down. The Brexit campaign shows that such dishonesty can pay: which is why it is so important that everyone understand that if the North leaves the EU and its customs union, and we remain inside it, there is nothing that the EU or anyone else can do to prevent the return of such a frontier.

  • There are other benefits to having a customs union: for example, the EU 27 is a far more formidable negotiator than the UK, allowing the EU to strike more favourable trade deals with third parties.

More on Brexit

Theresa May’s speech last week, while providing very little new information, provoked a lot of debate about the future relationship between the United (or perhaps more aptly the Disunited) Kingdom and the EU, and the potential consequences for Ireland. In particular there is much debate about the nature of the trade deal that might be achieved, and what Ireland should do. No doubt this debate will continue until the UK has left the EU and probably beyond.

However, what people are forgetting is that for there to be a trade agreement there first needs to be a successful outcome to the Article 50 negotiations. Some commentators do not distinguish the Article 50 negotiations, which are solely about the exit of the UK from the EU, from the trade negotiations, which in any case can’t be completed (at least in terms of signatures and giving legal effect to them) until the UK has actually left the EU.

The lack of attention on the Article 50 negotiations also seems to apply to the UK government, which other than indicating the likely time period in which Article 50 is going to be triggered, has not commented in detail about these. Theresa May’s speech last week is no exception in this. It would appear that the outcome of these negotiations is taken for granted, which might be due to a lack of understanding of what they entail.

A key aspect of the negotiations relates to the assets and liabilities shared between the Member States. The EU owns significant financial assets and of course also owns significant property assets. The 2015 consolidated EU accounts show that these assets were worth €154 billion. Of course the EU also has substantial liabilities, such as contractually committed expenditures but also pension liabilities. These amounted to €226billion in 2015. If one simply apportioned the net liabilities according to economic size the UK would owe the EU €12.6 billion.

Apportioning the UK share of the net liabilities amounting to €72 billion is going to be a tricky task, especially as the simple aggregate approach used here for illustrative purposes will have to be replaced by a much more detailed approach. Thus, instead of arguing about the shares for the two figures on assets and liabilities the negotiations will be about lots of figures.

Some commentators have also suggested alternative numbers, which are presumably based on different underlying data. For example the Financial Times has suggested that net payments from the UK to the EU could range between €20 billion and €60 billion. Apart from the potential for disagreements in attributing assets and liabilities to the UK, it should not be taken for granted that a Eurosceptic Westminster would approve payment of billions of pounds to ‘Brussels bureaucrats’. Failing to successfully complete the Article 50 negotiations would make trade negotiations difficult if not impossible.

What should Ireland do to mitigate the consequences of Brexit? Some people (e.g. Nigel Farage) are arguing that Ireland should also leave the EU. This is utter nonsense! Does anyone believe that Ireland could cut a good trade deal with a country that is over ten times larger in economic terms (GDP) and 14 times large in terms of population (the UK) rather than being part of a block that is almost 5 times larger than the UK? Brexiteers are trying to stir disagreement among EU members as a broken EU will be a lot easier to leave and doing deals with (small) individual countries will also be more advantageous for the UK.

The fact that Ireland trades extensively with non-EU countries, and particularly the US is not evidence that Ireland does not need the EU, but the opposite. Multinational companies that are responsible for the bulk of Irish trade are in Ireland because of EU membership. The EU has concluded trade deals with a range of countries and blocks and a small country like Ireland is not going to negotiate a better deal than the EU.

The latter point also applies to the UK. While Theresa May is now using the slogan of “making Britain truly global”, she and fellow Brexiteers have failed to show how the EU stopped the UK from being global. Indeed the evidence shows that Germany went global, i.e. increased its export share with non-EU countries accounting for EU expansion effects, from the 1980’s onwards. Using this definition the UK only started globalising in the early part of the last decade (see Morgenroth, 2017). Far from stopping countries going global the EU has actually facilitated globalisation for countries that wanted to pursue this goal (something that has been criticised by certain groups). Failure to do so is thus likely to be due to domestic policy failings.

So what should Ireland do? Firstly, it is important to note that when it comes to trade, the objectives of the EU are the same as those of Ireland – to keep trade as free as possible. Similarly, every EU Member State will want to protect its firms from unfair competition. This implies that the EU negotiating stance is likely to be reactive, responding to deviations by the UK from the status quo on trade barriers as well as other factors such as the adherence to State Aid Rules.

Secondly, while Ireland is particularly exposed to the negative impacts of Brexit, there are other EU Members, which will have shared concerns. For example as is now well known, the Irish agri-food sector is particularly exposed. Analysis shows that the Danish pork exports are as exposed Brexit as Irish beef exports to the UK (see Lawless and Morgenroth, 2016). Thus, there are natural allies which will have similar interests when it comes to the negotiations. The detailed analysis of which sectors, firms and regions are most exposed will help identify potential mitigating actions, for example by helping develop alternative markets.
Thirdly, EU Members will have the same objectives when it comes to attracting investment (both of foreign and UK firms) away from the UK, even if they will be competing against each other for this investment. Ireland is already more successful in attracting FDI than its size would suggest and it is likely that this will also apply to any investment diverted from the UK, at least in sectors where Ireland is already strong.

Finally, it is important to remember that it is not the EU that is turning its back on Ireland but that it is the UK that is doing so by leaving the EU – no amount of rhetoric changes this fact.

The UK House of Lords on Brexit and Ireland

This very welcome report by the UK House of Lords is available here, and it is good to see an official British document recognising that “Ireland now faces challenges that are not of its own making” — we might perhaps put things less politely on this side of the Irish Sea. Well done to all concerned.

I do have a couple of nitpicks.

  1. Beware of Britons suggesting bilateral negotiations. The report suggests that the UK and Ireland should negotiate bilaterally on UK-Irish issues. The problem is that UK strategy more generally appears to have been to try to open up divisions between member states by starting bilateral conversations with individual countries. The EU 27 have been very consistent in emphasising that we will be negotiating as a bloc, which is the only sensible way to proceed. In my view Ireland shouldn’t facilitate this long-standing British aim: not only do we share a common interest in getting the best possible deal for the EU27, and in preserving the cohesion of the EU; but as part of the EU 27, we will be in a stronger negotiating position vis à vis the UK than if we were to negotiate on our own. Ireland is already one of Michel Barnier’s top negotiating priorities, suggesting that our diplomats are succeeding in getting our message across to the rest of the EU. They should keep up the good work.
  2. Besides: how could Ireland and the UK agree on arrangements concerning the Border before we know what the eventual nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU will be?
  3. I am genuinely baffled by the following recommendation in the report:

    In the event that the UK leaves the customs union, a customs and trade arrangement between the two countries, subject to the agreement of the EU institutions and Member States.

    What does this mean? Ireland can’t be part of a customs union with both the EU and the UK, unless the UK chooses to stay in the EU customs union.  A bilateral trade deal between Ireland and the UK, not involving the rest of the EU, is impossible, both legally and as a practical matter, and it’s very important that everyone in Ireland understand this. If what is meant is that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU customs union (and, preferably, the Single Market also), then that is another matter — this would require customs controls between the two islands, but that would be far preferable from our point of view than customs controls along the Border. But I am not sure that that is what is meant, and so some clarification on this would be helpful.

But well done to the House of Lords for raising these issues, and for appearing to take them seriously, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of the British political establishment.

Independent Ireland in Comparative Perspective

I gave the economics lecture at the recent national conference at NUIG commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising. I had three main messages. First, the economic history of post-independence Ireland was not particularly unusual. Very often, things that were happening in Ireland were happening elsewhere as well. Second, for a long time we were hampered by an excessive dependence on a poorly performing UK economy. And third, EC membership in 1973, and the Single Market programme of the late 1980s and early 1990s, were absolutely crucial for us. Irish independence and EU membership have complemented each other, rather than being in conflict: each was required to give full effect to the other. Irish independence would not have worked as well for us as it did without the EU; and the EU would not have worked as well for us as it did without political independence.

There is a podcast available here. Since only audio is available, here is a link to my slides. I’m working on a paper version of the talk and will post a link to this as soon as possible.

What should Ireland be looking for?

It was very disturbing to read the following last week:

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said Ireland will consider a special free trade zone with the UK if Brexit results in a complex UK split from the EU and the Single Market.

It would be legally and technically impossible for one bit of a customs union and Single Market to have such an arrangement with a third party. To achieve such an objective would require our leaving the EU.

And so I was pleased to read this morning that what the Government is actually going to look for is some sort of special status for the North so as to maintain free trade within the island no matter what the British decide. Presumably this would mean the North remaining within the EU’s customs union and/or Single Market, otherwise it won’t work. (Remember: if Britain leaves the EU’s Single Market and customs union without an interim free trade deal with the EU in place, WTO rules require tariffs on trade between Britain and the EU. This can’t be avoided. And that means tariffs on trade between the Republic and Britain. That can’t be avoided either.) I don’t know if such a thing is legally possible under EU law — though as I mentioned earlier the Kingdom of Denmark might offer a possible model — but it does seem like an option worth exploring.

Beware of weasel words however. Jeffrey Donaldson is quoted as saying that

“What we’re really looking for is a special deal for the island of Ireland which enables free movement of goods and people on the island, and preserves the institutions we’ve created under the various agreements,” Mr Donaldson said. “The people we’ll need to convince are the EU.”

Yes, keeping the North inside the EU Single Market or customs union would indeed require this being possible under EU legislation, and it would require both good will and a fair amount of technical work to make it work, if it is even a runner in the first place. (How on earth would agriculture be dealt with, for example?) But the real problem is likely to come from the UK. Mrs May’s speech over the weekend seemed to rule out a special status for Northern Ireland — I thought she was pretty explicit about this. And how would the DUP feel about the logical corollary of such a scheme, namely customs frontiers (and in all likelihood tariffs) between the island of Ireland and Britain?§ The people that we will need to convince, above all, are in London and Belfast. And let’s start by trying to convince them to remain in the customs union, at least as an interim measure, until a free trade deal can be sorted out.

(And let’s not forget: it’s London that is responsible for this mess in the first place. Why on earth did Donaldson’s party support them?)

§ Yes, a border with the Republic promises to be extremely costly for them, but I presume they also export a fair amount to Britain. One way or another, it looks as though they are in big trouble if London decides to leave the Single Market and customs union.